Insanity in my old stomping grounds

Strangely enough, even though I lived in Cleveland for eight years and my wife lived there for eleven years before we left in 1996, I don’t recall ever hearing about this. I wonder if it’s a new thing that somehow the New York Times just happened to notice today:

CLEVELAND, Dec. 9 — They surf in Cleveland because they must. They surf with two-inch icicles clinging to their wet suits, through stinging hail and overpowering wind. They work nights to spend their winter days scouting surf. They are watermen on an inland sea.

Given its industrial past, Cleveland largely turns its back to Lake Erie, lining the coast with power plants, a freeway and mounds of iron ore to feed its steel factories. The shore is especially deserted in winter, when strong winds and waves pummel the land. In December, as temperatures dip into the 20s and ice gathers in the lake’s small coves, Cleveland surfers have Lake Erie almost entirely to themselves.

“Surfing Lake Erie is basically disgusting,” said Bill Weeber, known as Mongo, 44. “But then I catch that wave and I forget about it, and I feel high all day.”

Scott Ditzenberger hoped to experience the same feeling when he heard that the first blizzard of the winter was pounding across the Midwest.

“I was so excited I could barely sleep last night,” said Mr. Ditzenberger, 35, who quit his job as a lawyer in August to spend more time surfing and to film a documentary about Cleveland’s surf community.

It was the kind of day that lives mostly in Cleveland surfers’ fantasies. Pushed by the storm’s winds, water the color of chocolate milk rose 10 feet in the air before slamming onto a beach of boulders and logs. The temperature was 40 degrees and falling. One surfer, Vince Labbe, climbed onto his board only to get blown backward by 40-mile-an-hour winds.

And there are hazards:

The strongest winds and waves come in winter, just before Lake Erie freezes. Waves up to 10 feet have been surfed, but the largest swells are usually chest-high. Instead of curling into a vertical wall, the waves are round like haystacks, and they collapse onto the shore like soggy paper.

Surfers learn to avoid ice chunks the size of bowling balls. Some wear goggles to surf through freezing rain, which can sting their eyes like needles. That is a bad idea, Mr. Labbe said, because the goggles freeze to their faces.

Surfers watch their friends for signs of hypothermia, urging them to leave the water when their eyes glaze over and their words slur. Ear infections are a common affliction.

To reach the lake, surfers drag their boards across snowdrifts and beaches littered with used condoms and syringes, Mr. Ditzenberger said. The most popular surf spot is Edgewater State Park. It is nicknamed Sewer Pipe because, after heavy rains, a nearby water treatment plant regularly discharges untreated waste into Lake Erie.

Given that this particular park is a stone’s throw from downtown Cleveland (well, more like two miles west of there), one would be surprised if the water were actually clean However, it does represent the place where the southern shoreline of Lake Erie takes a fairly sharp turn north; so I can see how the prevailing winds would tend to be towards the shoreline there.

Even so, it tends to be really cold on the lakefront this time of year. I guess there are some people so devoted to surfing that there are no depths of craziness they won’t plumb.


  1. #1 Sid Schwab
    December 10, 2006

    In med school there, I once went swimming in Lake Erie (on a date with a girl I’d met and was hopeful…) As I got in the water, a few rats got out. I was also there when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Hazards aplenty.

  2. #2 DuWayne
    December 10, 2006

    I just heard about a couple of guys who are surfing every state in the country, on NPR a few weeks ago. Apparently this has included surfing a flooded corn field and flooded quarries.

    Back when I was growing up in Michigan, one of my middle school teachers confused the hell out of us, claiming that Lake Erie wasn’t really a “great” lake any more. Unfortunately, his enviromentalism went right over a bunch of heads, including mine. Thankfully it only took missing the question once, for me to realize he was being facetious. Other kids were not so lucky.

  3. #3 William The Coroner
    December 10, 2006

    C’mon, the lake is better than is was, thanks to the Zebra mussels. The truly insane are the CASE crew folks who row on the lower Cuyahoga with the ore boats and the stone barges.

    AND, PLEASE, the last time the oil on the river caught fire was 1969, for cryin’ out loud. Didn’t even kill anyone, not like the one in 1912.

  4. #4 Orac
    December 10, 2006

    I agree. In fact, I was annoyed by the title of the article: Yes, You Can Surf in Cleveland, Before the Brown Water Freezes.

    In actuality, Lake Erie is probably cleaner than it’s ever been since the start of the industrial age. Western Lake Erie, in particular Put-in-Bay and Kelley’s Island, have some really beautiful areas, and you can even fish there again.

  5. #5 mark a
    December 11, 2006

    Looks as though your post brought out all the Clevelanders to defend their city. I’ve lived in several of the “rust belt” cities; grew up in Buffalo, lived in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I root for the Browns and despise the Steelers though I will always be a Bills fan. Perhaps I am attracted to the underdog. Anyway, on the way in to work this morning I heard about this movie about Cleveland, interestingly enough on NPR this AM, talking to the people who made this film, they also mentioned the ‘winter Lake Erie surfers’.

    regards, and I’ll be sure to vote.

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